For me, the best type of true crime is the kind of text that blends memoir and nonfiction so seamlessly that the writer’s perspective and their reactions to the subject of their book seem inextricably wedded to the crimes the book recounts, as well as their consequences. Ellen McGarrahan’s book is just that. Two Truths and a Lie: A Murder, A Private Investigator, and Her Search for Justice (Random House, 2021) seems as much about self-exploration as it does about finding the truth about a crime through investigative methods.
The book starts not with a crime but with the state’s approximation of justice. McGarrahan, a reporter for the Miami Herald, witnesses the execution of inmate Jesse Tafero in Florida. His crime? The shooting deaths of two police officers in a violent altercation at a rest stop in the 1970s. Due to a malfunction with the electric chair and Tafero’s own surprising magnetism, Tafero’s violent and painful death haunts McGarrahan, much as she tries for years to avoid it.
Moving from reporter to private investigator through a series of bizarre events seeming to stem from this watershed moment in McGarrhan’s life, she embarks on a stunning career that truly had me enthralled. Her small and tantalizing tidbits of her life as a PI tell me that McGarrahan could fill books with shocking stories of the criminal not-so-under-world. All the while, Tafero’s death haunts her—there are questions about the case that still don’t seem to add up, despite the fact that a man has been executed for these crimes.
These questions take the form of two other people present at the rest stop that day. Walter Rhodes and Sunny Jacobs were also in the car the day that Jesse allegedly shot the police officers. Walter testified against Jesse and Sunny in order to avoid the death penalty, but then later confessed to the killings himself—and then recanted. Sunny herself was convicted of the killings as well, but years later her conviction was overturned, and she took an Alford plea. Therefore, although Jesse was executed, there are aspects of the case that remain unresolved. Who really fired the shots that day? Did the state execute an innocent man? McGarrahan, over the course of almost three decades, finally decides to use her skills as a PI to find out.
This book gave me the distinct impression of being on a roller coaster in the dark—in a very good way. Reading this book, you really get a chance to find out how deep the rabbit hole goes as McGarrahan is haunted by this crime and her investigation. Not only are the lives of the three people involved with the crime immensely complex and wholly shocking at times, but the facts of the crime continue to get more confused and it becomes less and less clear who might have fired the gun and when. There are so many complex details that the book has a kind of ‘blink, and you’ll miss it’ character. Even the smallest detail matters here, and can turn the entire case on its head, which happens several times. For a crime that initially seems so ‘straightforward’ in the sense that there are a number of evidentiary elements and witnesses, the amount of complex evidence and contradictory testimony is shocking.
McGarrahan’s journey through this investigation is both admirable and harrowing. Coming to terms with her own trauma—trauma that does not start with Tafero’s execution—is a difficult and complex aspect of this book. It is something that is necessarily blended throughout the investigation—inextricably so. McGarrahan’s search for connection through the story of the lives of these three people and those that knew him, and her desire to answer the question of whether or not she watched an innocent man die, is a crucial aspect of this book that I greatly admired. Highly skilled and deeply connected to the case—something that does not always serve her well as an investigator—McGarrahan’s book is stunningly human and unfailingly depicts all of the messiness that this entails.
The writing here is, as I’ve said, very fast-paced throughout. While I would have liked to see the timeline represented more clearly because there is a consistent forward and backward move between people, testimony, and events, with the amount of information in this case it seems almost impossible to write a book that could link all of these elements together in another way. This case spans about half a century, and the people who have lived with this for decades have various parts to play. McGarrahan has the sharp, to the point writing style of a reporter, and I think that voice lends itself well to this book.
Underlying much of McGarrahan’s investigation is her belief that Tafero’s execution was fundamentally flawed, and that the state’s use of the death penalty is wrong. Regardless of Tafero’s involvement in the crimes, McGarrahan witnessed a man die at the state’s hands and it affected her forever. This is one of the many solid, nonnegotiable fundaments of the book, and it goes without saying that, whatever happened, this man’s violent death was not the solution.
I highly recommend Two Truths and a Lie if you’re looking for a gripping, fast-paced book with a thoughtful and insightful premise. McGarrahan’s journey through this case is a shocking one, and it will leave you guessing until the very last chapter.
If you would like to read more about the death penalty in the United States and those organizations who work to abolish it, please visit The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. Additionally, “7 Organizations Working To End The Death Penalty,” an article from Bustle, provides a short list of current organizations in the USA working to abolish executions and also addresses some current concerns around death penalty cases in 2020/21.
About the Writer:
Rachel M. Friars (she/her) is a PhD student in the Department of English Language and Literature at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. She holds a BA and an MA in English Literature with a focus on neo-Victorianism and adaptations of Jane Eyre. Her current work centers on neo-Victorianism and nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history, with secondary research interests in life writing, historical fiction, true crime, popular culture, and the Gothic. Her academic writing has been published with Palgrave Macmillan and in The Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies. She is a reviewer for The Lesbrary, the co-creator of True Crime Index, and an Associate Editor and Social Media Coordinator for PopMeC Research Collective. Rachel is co-editor-in-chief of the international literary journal, The Lamp, and regularly publishes her own short fiction and poetry. Find her on Twitter and Goodreads.
A digital copy of this book was graciously provided to True Crime Index from Random House in exchange for an honest review.